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Stakeholders in Las Huertas Watershed meet at Las Placitas Presbyterian Church

Stakeholders in Las Huertas Watershed meet at Las Placitas Presbyterian Church

Las Huertas Watershed stake-holders consensus: do no harm

Denise Cherrington

More than sixty local residents met on Saturday, January 15, at Las Placitas Presbyterian Church for a public presentation and discussion about the Las Huertas Creek Watershed Project. Las Placitas Association hosted the all-day event.

The morning session began with an introduction by coordinator Reid Bandeen. He explained that LHWP has obtained a grant under the Clean Water Act to complete the watershed-group-formation process and draft a Watershed Restoration Action Strategy by June 2005.

Peggy Johnson, senior hydrologist at the New Mexico Bureau of Geology, presented information on the hydrology of the watershed and restoration specialist Rich Schrader spoke about how to restore a watershed.

Ric Richardson, of the UNM School of Planning, and Kate Hildebrand, consensus builder, coordinated the afternoon exercises, in which participants broke up into small groups for the purpose of establishing future management goals for the watershed.

Peggy Johnson explained that the Las Huertas Creek Watershed is a complex ecosystem, with three distinct zones. The creek flows perennially in the mountains, intermittently in the middle foothills, and occasionally in the lower reaches. Ultimately the water feeds the aquifer underlying the Rio Grande. Restoration is likely to take different forms in the three zones. The upper part of the watershed is where everything begins. Snow and rain bring water (in good years), which then enters the mountain aquifer and forms the creek from springs below Capulin Peak. Springs fed by this precipitation arise again along the foothills, bringing water to the Ojo del Orno, Rosa de Castilla, and the Placitas village springs. Faults in the mountains are water conduits, and faults in the foothills can be impediments to water flow, either making it reenter the aquifer or reappear at the surface as springs. The limestone mountain rock is porous, allowing water to flow rapidly, but it does not store as much water as lower formations of gravel and sand. So, the water lands on the surface as precipitation, sinks into limestone, gets pushed back to the surface through faults in the rock, emerges in springs, enters acequias, irrigates gardens and orchards (huertas in Spanish), flows back underground, gets pumped up wells and returns via wastewater systems, and otherwise is "used" in Rio Grande aquifers and acequias in southern New Mexico, then in Texas (and Mexico), before flowing ultimately into the Gulf of Mexico.

The emphasis of LHWP is water quality, but restoration may also affect water quantity and potentially increase available stream flow. Members of the three acequia associations within this watershed were very concerned that restoration efforts might decrease the water available to parcientes or interfere with traditional allocation rules. The consensus was that measures that protect the quality of the water would benefit the whole community, so long as existing rights are not impacted. 

The speakers introduced several interesting concepts. For instance, watersheds may be thought of as sponges. Techniques that spread surface water and store it in the sponge benefit the entire ecosystem. Acequias are a time-honored method of doing just that, and water harvesting, runoff retention, and agriculture are also beneficial. Efforts to control erosion improve quality by preventing silt and by reducing runoff, retaining water in the sponge rather having it quickly enter the Rio Grande.

Ric Richardson and Kate Hildebrand coordinated planning workshops in the afternoon. Participants formed smaller groups for brainstorming sessions. Each group marked large maps of the watershed to indicate special places, good and bad aspects, and Utopian aspirations. The groups rejoined and shared their ideas, considering good and bad influences on the ecosystem as it is now. Then, the whole group formed plans for specific actions that would be doable in small steps towards the bigger long term goal of improving and protecting the Las Huertas Creek watershed.

The main themes were: protection of the acequia systems, studies of the watershed must start at the top, forest fire protection must be addressed, and Placitas residents could learn more about these issues through booklets to be produced by drawing from resources in the community, acequia associations, land-grant families, and other residents with a working knowledge of the watershed.

This is just the beginning of a long process to gather information and ideas from all stakeholders in the Las Huertas watershed. The dialogue started on a somewhat contentious note, but by the end of the day all groups came together. Any actions that benefit the watershed and do no harm should be taken. The whole community must decide on a plan.

For more information on the LHWP and opportunities for involvement, please call Jennifer Nelson, public outreach coordinator, at 459-3186, or Reid Bandeen, at 867-5477, or go to www.lasplacitas.org.

 

Two comments on the watershed restoration workshop:

    1) Restoration efforts must respect acequia culture

Tony E. Lucero
President
San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant

Thank you to the Signpost for requesting comments on the watershed subject.

For about two and a half centuries the people living in Placitas have depended on the area water for their survival. There was a short period in the 1820s when the government temporarily evacuated the Placitas people because of life-threatening raids. The original settlement was never abandoned—that would imply that people left for good and never returned. Obviously, we're still here.

Webster's Dictionary defines watershed as "a region or area bounded peripherally by a water parting and draining ultimately to a particular watercourse." In regard to the Placitas watershed area, including the Las Huertas Canyon and all the surrounding tributaries on down to the arroyos that eventually reach the Rio Grande, there is no live stream that runs continuously to the Rio Grande. In the last half century the Las Huertas Arroyo has rarely reached the river and if so only for a short duration.

The upper Las Huertas Canyon in the National Forest is more consistent, and the channel has remained relatively unchanged.

Restoration is defined as "an act of bringing back to a former position or condition." It seems that some of the members of the Las Placitas Association, a private nonprofit group, have some concern as to the condition of the Placitas Watershed and possible need of restoration, LPA has secured funds from the New Mexico Environment Department to work on this watershed project.

It seems that the workshop information, though interesting and informative, did not clearly define the extent of any urgent need of restoration (putting back in its original condition). One of the speakers spoke of the possibility of streambed sediment. However, another commented that "silt happens," and, therefore, sediment is assumed to be a natural occurrence. It was also claimed that deep channel cuts are the result of overgrazing and diversion of creek flows. The upper Las Huertas Canyon has not been grazed for over half of a century and when there was grazing, it amounted to small numbers of livestock owned by a few local residents.

Regarding diversion of creek flow, there are some mountain cabins and a fishpond at the upper Las Huertas Canyon in the National Forest above the picnic grounds. There are acequia systems (irrigation ditches) that have been traditionally and historically supplied by surface waters. These acequias predate the arrival of the United States in 1848. These acequia-water-users have legally recorded ancient water rights. The water-rights owners number over two hundred. It is believed by some hydrologists and environmentalists that the acequia systems help in recharging the aquifers and assist in riparian habitat. The acequias are life-sustaining to their owners.

Many of the new families that have made Placitas their home work side by side with the long-established families to maintain these acequias. The acequia culture becomes very meaningful once you become a part of it.

It is hoped that the LPA will work with the acequia communities and help preserve these 250-year-old traditions and cultural practices.

Tony D. Lucero is also chair of the Coronado Soil and Water Conservation District and apast president of the Las Huertas and Las Placitas Acequias.

 

    2) Vested interests keep restoration on back burner

Jack Purcell

The Las Huertas Watershed meeting on January 15, was attended by a good cross-section of residents and others concerned about the current and future health of the Las Huertas Watershed. 

Rick Shrader, watershed restoration specialist, presented an overview of current thinking about the most effective methods for watershed restoration. These include meanders, wetlands, one-rock dams, and a number of other methods for slowing the progress of surface runoff and allowing water time to be absorbed by the soil instead of rapidly channeling and discharging into the Rio Grande.

During lunch and throughout the remainder of the program the meeting separated into smaller groups for the purpose of forming a consensus concerning the local vision for the watershed. At this point the diametrically opposing views of the various interest groups became apparent. 

Those who envision riparian restoration and the methods for watershed restoration found themselves at cross-purposes with the acequia groups, who are concerned that if water is encouraged to soak in on the upper and middle watershed, surface runoff will be reduced as a consequence, thereby reducing the water available to the acequias.

In the end, each of the groups presented their hopes and visions for the watershed, their immediate goals, their ideas for projects to fill these goals, and their shared thoughts concerning the resources available.

It seems clear that water rights of vested interests (including the acequia groups), county zoning, USFS maintenance and controlled burns, trash cleanup in the channel, development, and well drilling will have to take precedence for activities in the immediate future.  

Until the science of riparian restoration and the long-term benefits to all watershed users enters the mind-sets of the siege mentalities defending their own cup of water, a healthy Las Huertas Watershed will have to remain on the back burner. It’s a small beginning with a lot of hurdles to overcome. But, at least, most of the gristle is now out there on the plate where everyone can see it. 

 

Solar panels popping up on Indian land Solar panels popping up on Indian land

Solar panels popping up on Indian land

Sacred Power Corporation brings solar power to 50 Navajo households

Stephine Poston

Fifty homes in the outer reaches of the Navajo Nation will soon have electricity for the first time as a result of a partnership between the Sacred Power Corporation and the Chapter Houses of Torreon and Ojo Encino of the Eastern Navajo Nation. The electricity will be generated utilizing photovoltaic systems manufactured and delivered/installed by Sacred Power Corporation, a Native American company in Albuquerque.

Tina Hicks, who lives in one of the homes, was thrilled about the kids being able to study by light instead of by lantern. Hicks is already noticing that solar power is not only environmentally great; it is cost-efficient as well. “We won’t have to purchase any more lantern fluid,” Hicks said.

Ojo Encino president Ted Mace spoke of the many homes without power and the frustration he encountered when he asked why his people could not get electricity or running water. “This is no ordinary endeavor, as these homes have never had any source of energy. Now they can turn on the Christmas lights and feel good about it because the power source will be environmentally friendly,” he stated.

The operation and utilization of PV/hybrids is critical. Sacred Power will provide energy-efficient lighting (compact fluorescent) and high-efficiency refrigeration units that work well with PV/wind/battery systems. In addition to the benefits of electricity, Sacred Power will provide training and education to the end user. Sacred Power will train new Sacred Power employees or new entrepreneurs who will be hired from the local chapter houses to maintain the systems and for the homeowners to call on locally.

Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utility Service.

 

E’05: Environmental legislative priorities

E’05 is an ad hoc coalition of local, regional, and statewide environmental organizations. E’05 has identified the following priorities for the 2005 legislative session:

    New Mexico Healthy Communities Act

The New Mexico Healthy Communities Act will ensure that all communities in New Mexico are treated equally in decisions about where to locate pollution-causing industrial projects, regardless of a community's ethnic, socioeconomic, or cultural makeup. It will protect the fundamental democratic right of every community to have a voice in determining which businesses it will host.

    Protecting the Water Quality Act

Because the NM Water Quality Control Commission recently amended the water-quality standard for uranium, making it significantly more stringent, the New Mexico mining industry may try to undermine the new standard by amending the Water Quality Act E’05 strongly objects to any attempts to weaken any existing environmental standards or statutes, including the Water Quality Act.

    Conservation Funding Initiative

The Conservation Funding Initiative seeks to generate revenue to create a statewide, sustainable open-space and wildlife-habitat conservation program. During the 2004 legislative session, a coalition of environmental and animal-rights organizations, private citizens, and members of Governor Bill Richardson's staff, worked to pass a memorial (HJM 37) that directs the Department of Game and Fish and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to conduct a study to "investigate sustainable alternative funding measures to protect New Mexico's unique landscapes, open spaces, recreation areas and wildlife habitats."

    Water Efficient Technology Act

The Water Efficient Technology Act is a bold reform of New Mexico water policy. WET creates a new dedicated recurring revenue stream of millions of dollars for financing water projects from a modest surcharge on water. WET authorizes water users to invest WET dollars in water-efficient technology and infrastructure: technology that can reduce existing waste, spread our finite supply further, and save taxpayers millions of dollars in delayed or unnecessary costly new water-supply projects. WET also finances watershed restoration and state acquisition of water rights from willing sellers for public use and benefit, including stream health, recreation, and compact deliveries. Sixty-seven percent of New Mexicans polled say they would pay more for water if it pays for technology that solves New Mexico's water crisis. Our current water system can't get the job done. It's broken and WET will fix it.

    Water Resource Protection Act

Currently, New Mexico's water use outstrips our renewable supplies, meaning that we are mining our aquifers and depleting our rivers in an unsustainable manner. Despite intensive conservation efforts, our “water deficit” continues to grow. Why? Because our paper water rights exceed the amount of actual wet water available, and until some paper water rights are permanently retired, conservation will have little impact on our wet-water deficit. The Water Resource Protection Act will take the first bold step in reducing our water deficit, by authorizing the State Engineer to retire a percentage of water rights every time they are transferred to a new use. The amount of water rights to be retired will be determined based on the level of over-appropriation in the area, but can never exceed 10 percent. This measure will help reduce the gap between water supply and demand, while placing any cost burdens on the sectors generating new demands for our finite water resources.


Op-Ed: New domestic well permits need clear definition to protect senior water rights and secure compact deliveries

John D'Antonio
PE, New Mexico State Engineer

It should be no surprise that interest and debate is building on legislation to limit domestic well permits as the 2005 New Mexico Legislature is now in session. The issue was a hot one in the last two sessions—and unless an eleventh-hour compromise can be crafted, it looks to be a contentious one this year as well.

Let me make clear at the outset that it is Richardson Administration policy that the state engineer must have the power to limit or deny new domestic wells in certain areas, under carefully defined and limited conditions, to protect existing users and interstate compact deliveries. We are actively working to find an acceptable alternative, but we will push hard on the former if no compromise is reached.

New Mexico law currently provides that anybody wishing to drill a well for domestic water use is entitled to a permit. It is the only use of public water in New Mexico for which no water rights are required.

It is not an absolute right. State law already allows municipalities with water systems to limit or prohibit domestic well permits for households capable of being served by the municipal water system. The Office of the State Engineer already has the power to limit the consumption of a domestic well to less than three acre-feet.

In the 1950s, the exception to the requirement of obtaining water rights for the use of state water made sense in an era of sparse, widely distributed population, as a government aid to urban growth and development. It still makes sense in areas of New Mexico with sparse or widely distributed population—and such areas will rarely be subject to domestic well limitations. Widely distributed domestic wells have a negligible effect on the water rights of nearby senior users, and consequently there is no public purpose in denying or limiting them.

Today, however, much of New Mexico is in a different population environment. Today we have growing urban areas outside the reach of municipal water systems, with growing concentrations of domestic wells and attendant septic sewer systems. While domestic wells consume less than 1 percent of the total human water consumption in New Mexico, their effects are concentrated in some areas.

The addition of numbers of new wells in such areas potentially reduce water availability for existing wells—but with no authority to deny domestic well permits, the state engineer has no mechanism for carrying out his constitutional duty to protect existing users. Concentrations of domestic wells can affect the flows in adjacent streams—including those with interstate-compact delivery requirements—and the diversions of water users with senior rights. There is a very real question of whether the domestic well statute is unconstitutional because it limits the state engineer's power to protect senior water rights by allowing new appropriations when there is no data available.

A reassurance for concerned rural and semirural New Mexicans: there is no provision in the proposed legislation limit or rescind the domestic well permits for existing wells. Those already in place will not be affected—except to the degree that future limits on new wells might protect their water supply.

Opponents of putting limits on domestic wells prefer that any landowner can be issued a domestic well permit. They fear economic development restrictions in some designated areas.

Proponents of the limits see them as part of the state's overall strategy for gaining control over this indispensable factor of all life, to help make its use do the most for the most people, while protecting senior water users as required by the state constitution. There are cynical fringe positions on both sides of this issue—but it is a genuine public policy question at the center.

Governor Richardson recently met with a large and diverse group of opponents of domestic well limits. He pointed out the obvious fact that he is not anti-growth for New Mexico. But, as he has instructed me since the beginning of the administration, he views control of water use and enforcement of water rights as central to the state's ability to stretch this resource to support quality growth.

The Governor told the group he would work with them to find a way to carry out his objectives while addressing their concerns. He instructed me and Bill Hume, his primary water advisor, to work with opponents to seek a compromise. We will try hard to reach one. Representative Rhonda King (D-Santa Fe), is coordinating the efforts of the opponents’ group.

"I don't want to fight you guys, but I will if I have to," warned the Governor.

We will work hard to find a compromise so that neither the Governor nor the opponents of the bill will have to do battle on this issue again in the upcoming session.

 

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